Prospect Watch: Embiid's upside gives him shot at No. 1

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Failed big-man experiments litter the NBA unemployment line. Teams believe, perhaps rightfully so, if you're seven feet tall, can walk and chew gum at the same time, and have even the slightest idea how to play basketball, you have value.

It's why big men like Greg Oden get drafted over scorers like Kevin Durant: the shot at a player with that type of size and skill are exceedingly rare.

Oden, even for his failings in the NBA, provides a compelling historical example as to why Joel Embiid, the 7-foot, 250-pound freshman at Kansas, is being considered a dark horse candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in this spring's draft despite picking up the game of basketball just a few years ago.

As a freshman at Ohio State, Oden averaged 15.7 points and 9.6 rebounds in 28.9 minutes per game, and played a portion of the season shooting left-handed after breaking his right wrist.

Embiid, playing on a similarly talented Jayhawks team and under a similar disadvantage (he started playing hoops at age 16), is putting up 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in just 21.8 minutes per game. But per 36 minutes, those numbers grow much closer together. Oden averaged 19.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game, while Embiid is averaging 18 points and 11.5 rebounds per 36 minutes.

Embiid only recently entered the Kansas starting lineup. But as the Jayhawks continue to feed the young shotblocker minutes (his per 36 numbers are similar to Oden's), you can expect his numbers will as well.

More to the point, Embiid, who hails from Cameroon, is not the next Hasheem Thabeet or Bismack Biyombo. Despite his newness to the game, Embiid has already displayed the type of hand-eye coordination and skillset that puts his projected game at another level.

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The son of a professional handball player, Embiid grew up playing soccer and volleyball, leading to his excellent coordination. Against San Diego State, Embiid was constantly double-teamed and was still able to find teammates for open shots. That kind of passing ability is an innate feel, and hints at a skill level far beyond recent foreign-born NBA post projects. Embiid also runs like a gazelle, showing a much lower risk on his lower body and back than a player like Oden, who had a slew of red flags health-wise. already has Embiid projected first in its latest mock. From Drew Wolin:

"Offensively, Embiid's game is quickly expanding, but he can already score in a variety of ways. Going forward, he will likely rely on mid-range jumpers and back to the basket post moves. However, he is already confident taking face up shots out to the college three point line with decent [but not great] form."

NBA Draft Express has Embiid fourth, ahead of potential studs like Aaron Gordon, Marcus Smart, and Dante Exum, and does Chad Ford.

His game against San Diego State on Sunday — 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks in just 26 minutes — was his fourth straight game in double-figures as a scorer and second straight with a double-double.

If Andrew Wiggins continues to underwhelm, don't be surprised to see Embiid usurp his place as not only the best Jayhawk prospect, but the 2014 draft's best overall.

Best of the rest: Updates on other top NBA Prospects

Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- The last two weeks have been somewhat of a struggle for Parker who has cooled off after lighting college basketball on fire to start the year. He's been under 50 percent as a shooter his last three games, including a 2-of-10 brickfest against Notre Dame where he actually rode the bench for the final few minutes of the game.

Parker has already passed early-season tests against top-ranked opponents, but the grind of the ACC conference schedule will be telling about his focus, demeanor and attitude moving forward. We know what his skill level is, but during an 82-game NBA season, how will he hold up? He'll have to prove he can bring intensity and leadership every game because it only gets harder with the schedule at the next level.

Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- Randle hasn't played in the past week, but this SB Nation piece on the concern over Randle's length as a future NBA player is worth your time.

Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- Maybe Embiid's rebounding numbers should be adjusted to factor in Wiggins' shooting due to his terrible numbers of late. In the last four games, Wiggins has shot 30 percent or worse in three of them, going a combined 17-of-49 overall. This, after Wiggins was outstanding against Florida in what was probably the best game of his career. So much for momentum.

Perhaps the bigger concern with Wiggins should be that he's not doing much else to help his team with his shot not falling. After grabbing 11 rebounds against Florida, Wiggins has had just 15 total in the past four games and does little as a passer. His defense is undeniable, but right now, that's pretty much all he's giving Kansas and that's not good enough for the presumptive No. 1 pick.

Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State -- While Smart's shooting overall this season has improved, in big games he tends to get a little shot-happy and forgets how superlative he is at getting in the lane and creating, either for himself or his teammates. Worse yet, Smart's three-point shooting has been abysmal lately, going 3 of his last 13 shots over three games.

And after going just one game all year without a steal, Smart has now gone back-to-back contests without a pickpocket. After losing Michael Cobbins to injury, you would expect an adjustment period for Smart. His game in a loss to Kansas State though isn't going to cut it. He scored 16 points, but shot just 6-of-14, making only one of his six attempts from long range. He did have six boards, three assists, and a block in typical Smart-fashion, but in a draft loaded with scorers at the top, Smart needs to get his consistency down with his jumper in a hurry.

Gary Harris, G, Michigan State -- After coming back from an ankle injury, Harris has the look of the All-American player he was projected to be. In those four games, Harris is averaging 19.5 points per game including 44.8 percent shooting from deep — although his erratic shooting overall has only slightly improved.

Harris was brilliant against Indiana on Saturday, pouring in 26 points, while adding five steals and four rebounds. The Michigan State star has an NBA body and athleticism to get to the rim. He rebounds his position well, but his passing and handle may be less than ideal given his height at just 6-foot-4. Most of all, Harris needs to show he can shoot it with better consistency, something he has done lately.

Noah Vonleh, F, Indiana -- An extremely promising game against Illinois for Vonleh was followed up by a stinker against Michigan State. Against the Illini, Vonleh had 16 points and nine rebounds, getting most of his production at the free throw line where he shot 10-of-16 (for the year he shoots almost 72 percent from the stripe).

But against Sparty, Vonleh struggled to carve out space and get in position to score, finishing with only five points. He did snare eight rebounds with his lanky frame and leaping ability, but as an offensive threat right now, Vonleh remains a work in progress. His upside and size has him inside the lottery at the moment, but figuring out his niche as an offensive player will be critical moving forward.

Rodney Hood, G/F, Duke -- There may not be a more underappreciated player in college basketball than Hood, who has had to play in the shadow of Jabari Parker. But with Parker struggling against Notre Dame, Hood came up huge with 27 points, including a 5-of-10 performance from deep.

Hood is a deadly shooter, knocking it in at a 51.9 percent clip, despite taking 37 percent of his overall field goal attempts from beyond the arc — where he shoots 44.1 percent. Hood is a potential 50/40/90 player in the NBA and at 6-foot-8 can rebound his position as well. And despite playing all but two minutes against Notre Dame and taking 17 shots, Hood turned it over just twice. Think Rashard Lewis Lite before he signed his mega-deal with the Magic.

Games to Watch

Tuesday, Jan. 7: No. 3 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Michigan State

This is a huge game for Gary Harris and Adreian Payne's draft stock as they face Ohio State and the long, athletic Buckeyes. Aaron Craft is an absolute pest defensively, and if he can continue to string together some solid performances, could work his way into the draft conversation — he's a borderline second-rounder at this point. The Buckeyes boast the best defense in the country, making for an enormous test for Harris and Payne, not to mention the rest of the Spartans. LeQuinton Ross is another name to watch, Ohio State's do-it-all forward who has second-round potential. He may match up with Harris and Payne at various times in this game, allowing him to potentially showcase his diverse skill set.

Wednesday, Jan. 8: No. 16 Kansas vs. Oklahoma

If Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid are defensive studs, let's see them slow down one of the better offenses in the country in an old-fashioned Big-12 shootout. Oklahoma doesn't have NBA talent all over its roster like KU, but senior Cameron Clark is long and can score — Wiggins will likely draw that assignment. Ryan Spangler is only 6-foot-8, but averages 11.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, which means Embiid will have to show he can impose his will on shorter, less talented players. Buddy Hield can score as well, so the wings for Kansas will have their hands full, as will Embiid on pick-and-roll defense. And if there were ever a time for Wiggins to get hot, facing the 183rd ranked defense in the country would be the time.

Thursday, Jan. 9: No. 1 Arizona vs. UCLA

A matchup of lottery picks likely won't bring many one-on-one matchups, but don't count out Aaron Gordon who has defended all types of players well this season. Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine form one of the best 1-2 punches in any college backcourt scoring the ball and while Gordon probably won't guard LaVine, the two may meet at the summit more than once as LaVine tries to throw down the dunks he's become famous for as a Bruin. As for LaVine, he'll have to defend T.J. McConnell one of the more underrated guards in the Pac-12 who is the catalyst for the Wildcats. Nick Johnson is the scorer for 'Zona, so expect LaVine and Adams to both see time defending him. This is the time for LaVine to show he can get to the rim and finish against an NBA-caliber frontline. As for Gordon, he could get a chance to finally be the go-to scorer as UCLA doesn't have a player who can match his size and athleticism.

Saturday, Jan. 11: No. 19 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Syracuse

Syracuse's 2-3 zone robs us of some potential one-on-one battles, but there are still plenty of juicy matchups to watch. Tyler Ennis has been phenomenal for the Orange as a freshman and if he's able to score and distribute against the NBA athletes the Tar Heels can throw out, he will go a long way to showing he can be an NBA point guard. On the other side, Marcus Paige is a deadly shooter with a potentially friendly matchup against a zone. James Michael McAdoo is an up-and-down player with a ton of talent. How C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant play against him will be defining for all three players as NBA prospects. All three use their length and athleticism to make plays without much refinement or skill, although Grant is a potential lottery talent, while Fair and McAdoo have work to do to get into the first-round discussion.